'She left. With a bit of help.' There were always two ways to read Kathleen Folbigg’s diary.

God forbid you should see inside the mind of a grieving mother.

Nothing you find there will be tied in a neat bow for public consumption. Nothing will be sturdy enough to be held up to the light for scrutiny from people who are not half-wild with a bottomless grief. 

And yet, we all looked inside the mind of a woman who had lost not one, but four infant children, and decided that the fragments of sense we saw were enough to lock her away for life. 

Kathleen Folbigg's diaries put her in prison. 

The scientific evidence against Folbigg as she stood trial for her children's murder and manslaughter in 2003 was patchy. And complicated. All four babies – Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Laura – had died in slightly different ways. 

Caleb was only 19 days old. It was ruled as SIDS. Patrick suffered repeated seizures. Sarah and Laura's deaths were the most similar – both little girls stopped breathing in their cots, Sarah at 10 months, Laura at one-and-a-half. But there was no evidence of smothering, no signs of struggle. In the case of Laura's death, there was only a frantic triple-0 call from a mother desperately trying to perform CPR she had learned by terrible necessity, and wailing that she could not lose another.

The details of the deaths themselves were not credible cause for a conviction, and this week, their scientific causes set Folbigg free.

Watch: A statement from Kathleen Folbigg following her release. Post continues after video.

Video via Kathkeen Folbigg's representative.

But at the time, the sheer number of losses drew suspicion, disbelief and appropriate scrutiny. And then, her husband Craig read the diaries, and they unsettled him. 

"This time I'm going to call for help," one entry said. "This time I'm going to not attempt to do everything myself anymore. I know that was the main reason for all my stress before. And stress made me do terrible things."

“All I wanted was to shut her up and one day she did.”

“One day it will leave," said another. "The others did, but this one’s not going in the same fashion. This time I’m prepared and know what signals to watch out for in myself.”

"I feel like the worst mother on this earth, scared to leave me now, like Sarah did. I knew I was short-tempered and cruel sometimes to her and she left. With a bit of help."

Each of these entries glimpse inside the mind of a mother who'd lost everything, more than once. These entries are chilling when read like this, out of context, in the cold light of day, away from the storm of grief. They are disturbing when viewed, handwritten in looping, sometimes erratic scrawl, on the lined pages of a woman's journal. 

But they are not what they seem. 

Experts discussing these diary entries at the inquiries into Folbigg's conviction have said that these words are not surprising, coming from a woman who blamed herself for the loss of her babies. 


And almost every woman who loses a child blames themselves. 

Almost every mother, grieving or not, has thought unpleasant thoughts about their child. Has willed them to shut up. Has longed for a rest. And when they do, almost every woman has considered themselves that most awful of things: a Bad Mother. 

But the experts say in a mother who has suffered such extreme loss these thoughts are heightened, and ever-present.

Joanna Garstang is one of those experts. She is a consultant community paediatrician, and a designated doctor on a child death review panel from Birmingham in the UK. And about Folbigg's diaries, she wrote: 

“Much of my clinical work involves the investigation of unexpected child deaths, regularly working alongside police. In my opinion, the expressions of self-blame and guilt in Ms Folbigg’s diary fit with those described in the literature or that I have witnessed in my clinical and research practice. I do not consider them true confessions of guilt. 

“Ms Folbigg is blaming herself for the deaths, she may be considering that her stress caused the deaths. This is in keeping with published literature and not of concern.”

Listen to Holly Wainwright discuss Kathleen Folbigg on this episode of Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues after podcast.

Another such expert is Emma Cunliffe. She is Canadian, a professor at the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. She has written a book called Murder, Medicine and Motherhood


She writes: "Folbigg... blamed herself for her children’s deaths because she believed it was a mother’s responsibility to protect her children from every harm. She described how her grief and depression compounded over the course of a decade of loss.

"Always well organised, in the face of successive infant deaths Folbigg became superstitious, almost obsessive, about controlling every detail of her children’s upbringing."

You can feel that obsession and superstition in those diary entries, with just a tilt of perspective.

A mother who miscarries blames herself for what she did or didn't eat, what she did or didn't drink. Was she stressed? Was she too negative about the pregnancy? 

A mother who loses a child is convinced her actions were the cause. Why wasn't she there, all the time? Why wasn't she more vigilant? Why wasn't she stronger? Why didn't she know something was wrong? Why didn't she try everything?

If only I hadn't said that, the magical thinking of grief tells us. If only I hadn't gone there. If only I hadn't thought that thing. 

If only I had been better. My baby would still be here. 

The men who heard Folbigg's case didn't see that truth. 

Jane Hansen, a journalist who has spent an enormous amount of time on the Folbigg case as host of the podcast A Mother's Guilt, would like us all to remember the opening statement from the Crown Prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi, QC, in the original case.


He was establishing motive, he believed, when he said that Folbigg was "Constantly tired, resentful at her husband Craig for not providing what she considered adequate help."

That she was "constantly preoccupied to an exaggerated degree with weight gain because she couldn't get to the gym".

And that she desperately wanted to "get some sleep". Some peace. Some respite. 

The subtext is that only terrible, murderous mothers resent their husbands. Feel bad about their bodies. Want to sleep. Want a break.

It's never been true. 

Kathleen Folbigg's diaries sent her to prison. Tedeschi said they were "as good as a machine for looking into her mind".

Now, thanks to what she refers to as "science and truth", she's free. Or, as free as a person can be when you have lost four children and 20 years of your life. 

The words Folbigg wrote on those lined pages all those years ago didn't fit how we believed a bereaved mother should feel. We didn't consider the trauma, the unimaginable loss, the fragmentation of reality when everything you dread comes to pass. We didn't see context.

There were always two ways to read those diaries. But the right one was almost impossible to bear.

We looked inside a grieving mother's mind and saw guilt. And mistook it for Guilty. 

Image: Kathleen Folbigg + Mamamia.